A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse
Part VIII: Syllable Weight and Resolution
When we talk about lifts, just about everything that affects the perceived strength
of a syllable matters. Even alliteration can be described as a way to add emphasis to the
lifts in a half-line. For this reason, the structure of the syllable also matters.
In English (and other stress-based languages) there is a very strong connection between
stress and the structure of syllables. A simple way to illustrate the fact is to take a long
word like confidentiality and break it up into syllables:
con fi den ti al i ty
Three syllables are closed (i.e., they end with a consonant): con, den,
and al; four syllables are open (i.e., they end at the vowel): fi, ti,
i, and ty. It is no accident that the three closed syllables are more strongly
stressed than the open syllables. The "heavier" a syllable is (i.e., the more there is in the
syllable after the vowel) the more prominent it seems, and the more likely it is to attract stress.
We can set up a scale, from the lightest to the heaviest types of syllables, as follows:
- Open syllables (syllables ending in a simple vowel): pa, huh.
- Open syllables with a diphthong (historically, long vowels and diphthongs): boy, how.
- Closed syllables (syllables ending with a single consonant): hat, bag.
- Heavy syllables: syllables ending with diphthong plus consonant or more
than one consonant: house, noise, horse, bold, band, bank
Given the way English works, there is a very strong tendency for lifts to be heavy (or at least
closed) syllables. And there are some special things that happen with stressed, open syllables. Consider
the following examples:
He is a big man.
He is a little man.
The word little consists of a stressed, open syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. And
it practically trips off the tongue: rhythmically, it takes about the same amount of time to say "big man"
as it does to say "little man".
What this means is that rhythmically, we can treat words like little or sudden as the
equivalent of a single heavy syllable. Take a pair of hypothetical half lines like the following:
one who lives by the sword
will meet swift death
Notice how the lifts are all closed or heavy syllables: lives, sword, swift, death. But in
terms of Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, the following pair of half lines are rhythmically equivalent:
one who lives as a savage
will meet sudden death
In short, a lift doesn't have to be a single syllable. It can also be a two-syllable combination like
sudden or savage, where the first syllable is open and stressed, and the second syllable is
This is called resolution since the pair of syllables are resolved or treated as if they
were a single heavy syllable.
In Anglo-Saxon, where there was a distinction between long and short syllables, long syllables could not
be resolved; long vowels behaved just like diphthongs. In modern English, the notion of vowel length doesn't
make any sense (though syllable heaviness does.) So it's a practical question whether resolution is a real
phenomenon in modern English.
In my own writing of alliterative poetry, I started without any sense that resolution was possible,
but over time I have begun to feel its effects, and have gradually concluded that resolution is a real
rhythmic pattern. Sequences like savage, sudden, little ... these seem to have a special rhythmic quality.
But we can wait till we analyse real examples of alliterative poetry to worry about it. For now, we should
simply add the concepts of heavy syllable and resolution to our list of concepts. Both will be useful later.
Back: What Makes a Strong Stress?
Next: Secondary Stress; Strong and Weak Dips
Copyright ©2000, Paul Deane